August 18th, 2014
Guest: Stephan Eirik Clark
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In introducing my guest, I have to mention the Colbert bump because my guest recently got it. As you may know, the publishing company Hachette has been in bitter negotiations with Amazon over Amazon's pricing of e-books. Amazon retaliated by delaying delivery of Hachette books and not making new Hachette books available for preorder. Colbert is published by Hachette and objects to what he describes as, Amazon's unilateral embargo against the publisher, which is especially harmful to first-time authors. To fight back, he asked his viewers, the Colbert Nation, to use an independent bookseller to preorder the Hachett book "California," Edan Lepucki's debut novel. After turning her book into an instant best-seller, Colbert asked Lepucki to choose another first-time author about to be published by Hachett and give that book the Colbert bump.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")
STEPHEN COLBERT: OK, is there another Hachett author that you'd like to bump here tonight to tell the good people out there maybe they should take a look at?
EDAN LEPUCKI: Yeah. I'm reading Stephan Eirik Clark's book, "Sweetness #9," which is so good.
COLBERT: Is this a new author?
LEPUCKI: It's a debut novel.
COLBERT: Debut novel called "Sweetness #9" by Stephan...
LEPUCKI: Eirik Clark.
COLBERT: ...Stephan Eirik Clark. Stephan, I'm going to need to ask you to pick two of those three names. You're being greedy. Let's call it just Stephan Clark - we'll call him Stephan Clark, "Sweetness #9." If you're looking for another book to bump, that would be the one.
GROSS: So even before "Sweetness #9" got the Colbert bump, we had booked its author, Stephan Eirik Clark, on our show. And now he is my guest. The book will be published tomorrow. The main character is a flavor chemist who starts his career in 1973 at a flavor company who's new product is an artificial sweetener called Sweetness #9. His job is to test the product on lab rats and monkeys and monitor the health effects. He reports a lot of side effects that are covered up by the company.
Sweetness #9 soon becomes the artificial sweetener used in diet drinks and many other foods and is also marketed in little packets for use in coffee and tea. When he sees Americans overcome by the symptoms he found in the lab animals, like obesity, rage and depression, he feels personally responsible for not having blown the whistle on the manufacturer.
The novel takes a satirical look at over two decades of food wars, family life and American culture.
Stephan Eirik Clark, welcome to FRESH AIR.
So let's start with a reading from "Sweetness #9." And this is toward the beginning when he becomes - when your main character becomes a flavorist-in-training at a flavor laboratory. And he's told he'll be working on testing a new artificial sweetener, testing that on rats and monkeys. So he sees himself as a flavor artist and not so much as a tester, but he's happy to be at this flavor house. So how about the reading?
STEPHAN EIRIK CLARK: (Reading) And how couldn't I be so thrilled? It was a wonderful time to embark upon a career in the flavor sciences, a golden age, I can't help but think now. Just consider, in the 19th century the industry existed solely for the benefit of the baker, confectioner and soda maker, but following the end of the second world war, the profession experienced a great westward expansion as a result of the TV dinner; a Louisiana Purchase that was drawn in the shape of a four compartment aluminum tray. This was added to in short time by the launch of the first domestic microwave; a Sputnik-like event that caused young men such as myself to heed the call of the nation's top food science programs. I was now on the other side of my Master of Science degree and being asked to start in animal testing. But this was in no way unexpected. Animal testing at Goldstein, Olivetti and Dark was like the mailroom at the old William Morris talent agency - even those recruited out of the Ivy League started here.
GROSS: So this is, obviously, like a calling for him in the golden age of the flavoring industry. Why did you choose the flavoring industry as the setting for the novel?
CLARK: Well, I lived my whole life eating these flavorings, and I'd never really stopped to consider the importance of them until reading "Fast Food Nation" in 2001. Flavorings were like gravity or electricity - something that was all around me but that I had never paid any attention to. And as soon as I read that book and its chapter on food product design, I started to ask myself, you know, how important are these to the foods? And I started to question if I was really eating food or just the idea of food because with these molecules, you know, you can make something tastes like grass or roasted chicken - and what is it covering up? What is it supporting? What is it enhancing? All these questions and philosophical ideas that sprung out of the simple industry just went off, and I found myself deep into a novel.
GROSS: Was the '70s a golden age for this like you say in the novel?
CLARK: I think so. It wasn't really until the last 10 years that we started to talk about food and what goes in it. In 1998, when the novel starts, organic didn't have a definition and farmers markets haven't taken off. In the novel, I talk about there being sort of a great awakening in the nation's food consciousness to sort of rival the religious awakenings that we have in our country every now and then. It seems like in the late-'90s this is what was happening and it's continuing to happen today. So in the '70s when Tang was still king, we were just eating and we weren't really questioning.
GROSS: And for anybody who doesn't remember - Tang was a powdered orange drink that was artificially flavored and sweetened.
GROSS: Is that a fair description?
CLARK: That went to space I think.
GROSS: It went into space - exactly. Or at least that's what we were told. (Laughter).
GROSS: It was made for the astronauts. So you've also made your main character someone who, in the 1970s, saw himself as part of the silent majority - or Spiro Agnew describes silent major it that was very conservative. He was afraid the communists were going to take over if we weren't vigilant. He supported the war in Vietnam. He remained a virgin into grad school. Why did you make him a conservative member of the silent majority?
CLARK: Well, I read a lot of books about heroes or, you know, people who - I mean - who are very bright-minded. And didn't want to write a book that was going to be looking at what is right with food where somebody was righteously talking about this is what food should be. And I wanted somebody who, like most of us, puts his faith in the American food system and slowly begins to question it. He's in the middle of the industry. He's making these flavorings, and he hasn't paid much attention to it until things start to happen to his family and his wife and his child. And he has to start to question what am I doing? And what are we eating? If he was somebody who was more heroic who knew the answers from the start, he wouldn't have had any change to go through, and I don't think that I would have wanted to sit through a book, listening to him sort of tell me what I should know. I'm more interested in people who are full of contradictions and questions and have to struggle to arrive at something.
GROSS: Sweetness #9, the artificial sweetener that he has to test on lab rats and monkeys in the beginning of the book is like changing for him because he sees the side effects that it's causing in these lab animals. What was the place of sweeteners in the '70s when this part of the book takes place? We had saccharin. Did we have Sweet'N Low yet?
CLARK: No, this is taking place at a time when we only had saccharine. And the FDA had started to question it in the early-'60s. There had been some studies linking it to cancer in lab rats, and the only reason it wasn't taken off the mark was that it was the only thing on the market which sounds kind of crazy. But a number of industries were trying to outdo that and create a new substitute sweetener that could then take over the marketplace, and this is what the book's about. It's about one of these companies with Sweetness #9 being the second into the market.
GROSS: And, in terms of the testing, nothing seems to matter except do the lab rats get cancer? And they don't get cancer, but they do get obese and angry, like, mood disorders - all kinds of bad things are happening to them. Do you think that that's the way it was then or still is now that the issue is cancer or not - that that's what's being measured and only that?
CLARK: Yeah, when I started researching this subject, I went to a flavor lab in California where I was living at the time. And I spoke to the chief flavorist there, and I said, you know, there's a rise in autism, ADHD, attention deficit disorder - all of these other things - depression, anxiety - what's going on in American culture? Is it possible that the food that we're eating could be causing this? I wanted that question answered. And he said well, you know, we don't test for any of that. I'm not sure we could test for that, and it would, certainly, be very expensive if we did. We primarily look for cancer. That's what the FDA asks. There are rules saying that if anything causes cancer in man or animal, it can't be entered into the food stream. So that's the focus of all of these clinical studies.
GROSS: So your main character, when he realizes all the problems that Sweetness #9 is having in the lab animals - he protests within the company, but he doesn't become a whistleblower outside for reasons I'll let leaders discover on their own. But he starts feeling guilty for everything - for his wife's obesity - for obesity in America - for his son's unusual language disorder - for his daughter's obsession with organic food - for his own early problems with fertility. And I have to read this sentence about this. It's a great sentence. (Reading) He writes, his sperm was described as sluggish and listless - everything but alcoholic and unemployed. (Laughter) Anyways - great sentence. So did you go through a period writing this as a father when you were just worried that every problem that your child had was something that you had caused?
CLARK: Well, I don't know about causing the problems, but you do think more about what you're feeding your family whenever you are a father. It's one thing to eat microwavable dinners as I did as a single man. But whenever I've got two young boys, you stop and question, what am I putting into their bloodstreams? What's going into their brains. And does this have any influence on them, and, you know, it's very difficult to say because, again, we don't test for this stuff. And we don't test for the effects of a single product. And we, certainly, don't test for the effects of hundreds and hundreds of products and the consequences of them over a lifetime of use. So we're left with these questions. You know - why is this happening? Or why do they act this way or feel this way? And you want to know an answer. So a lot of people look to food. And we have to ask ourselves, you know, does it have anything to do with it? I don't know that we can provide an answer, but we have that question. That anxiety is really at the center of the book.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephan Eirik Clark. He's the author of the new novel "Sweetness #9." And you may have heard about the Colbert bump before it was published. Let's take a short break. Then, we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephan Eirik Clark. He's the author of the new novel "Sweetness #9," which is the book that recently got the Colbert Bump. And it's about a flavorist - somebody who designs artificial flavors for food. And it spans from 1972 to the late 1990s. You've created an unusual disorder for the main character's son, which is that he stops using verbs. How did you come up with that?
CLARK: I guess I wanted to write a family drama but I didn't want to write the same old family drama that we've all seen. And so I wanted to first set it in the world of food because it allowed me to use a new vocabulary and language and a new metaphor system to talk about family dysfunction. And then I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before. So the son speaks without verbs. That was a great challenge for a writer, you know. How do I write somebody who can't use any verbs? So that was fun.
GROSS: Is there a section you could read that illustrates how the son speaks without verbs?
CLARK: Sure. David has just learned from the mother of one of his son's friends that his son might not be using verbs. And it comes as a great surprise to him because he's never noticed this. So he's now driving with his family to McDonald's and he's going to try to draw a verb out of his son much like a policeman might draw a confession out of a bad guy.
(Reading) As I sped toward McDonald's, I remembered the dreams I'd had as a young man before my stint at Greystone Park (ph) had put an end to such thinking. Back then when not imagining a future in flavor, I'd often considered working for the CIA. I'd thought I could be the type of agent who can get the truth out of someone after only a few minutes in a closed room. So here I put those dreams into action. Some weather we're having, isn't it, I said. I looked for Ernest in the rearview mirror but he only bit into his corndog and shrugged. Priscilla keeps telling me it's global warming because it is. I sent my daughter a stern look over my shoulder. She had an oversized personality more like that of a president than a political advisor, the exact opposite of her brother, who played Atwater to Priscilla's Reagan, content never to take the center stage. Understanding my purpose now, Priscilla nodded and sank back into her seat. It's certainly unusually warm, I continued. It's not even August yet and already we've had seven days this summer over 90. What do you think, E? He turned his corndog round on its stick. He was eating the dough off first. Heat wave, he said. Betty sighed. I gave her a reassuring nod. Yes, a heat wave - what've we had, two days in a row at or above 94? And tomorrow it's only going to get hotter they say - 99. No, that high? What makes you say that? The computer. When I looked this morning, my homepage said to expect a high of 95. Ernest looked for me in the mirror. The temperature reading - 95 - he gestured with his corndog. But it feels like 97. I smiled at my wife -feels like. But she was quicker with grammar than I was and had already determined the phrase had been used as an adjective to modify the reading of which he spoke. As she turned to look out her window, I pushed my foot down on the gas. How do they even know what it feels like? Ernest was biting into the meat of his corndog now. Computers, inputs, variables - all very complex. But how does a computer determine a feeling? Can you tell me that? Logarithms, statistics - his voice betrayed his loss of interest. He looked around for a place to dispose of his now meatless stick - et cetera, et cetera. Well - I let out a long breath - all these years I thought I was leaving you a better world, but now it seems I may have been wrong. Computers that feel - you want my advice? Don't go West. Go back. I'm not sure where we went wrong, but it has to be back there somewhere. Do you hear me?
GROSS: Well, I have to say the way he's speaking without verbs it just sounds like your average sullen teenager (laughter) who speaks in really short sentences. You don't really want to have a long conversation with their parents and is just kind of grudgingly giving answers.
CLARK: Yeah, that's really what I was going for because David is questioning whether or not his family's acting the way it is because of Sweetness #9 poisoning - you know, this overload of chemicals - or if it's just the American condition. And yeah, the sullen teenager - is there something wrong with them or is that how that teenager is acting? Is it something in American culture that makes him act that way? And so I very much wanted Ernest to be straddling that line.
GROSS: Let's talk about vanilla. One of the companies that your flavorist works for in the novel has a flavor that's called No Nilla and they're working on improving it. And we're told in the novel that there's only enough vanilla beans in this world to satisfy a country the size of Germany. And here we are in the vanilla-dependent U.S., where less than 2 percent of the world's beans are grown, but more than three out of every four are consumed. Is that true? I didn't know that.
CLARK: I saw that in my research somewhere along the way. I read a lot of back issues of Food Product Design in the newsletters for the Society of Flavor Chemists. And I picked up that tidbit of information somewhere along the way. So yeah, I think it is true. And it's one of the things to show that there is a valid, you know, reason to use these additives - these flavorings in our food because otherwise, yeah, maybe only the rich or the privileged would then be able to have vanilla flavorings in their food. So it's not an anti-flavorings novel. It does, I hope, look at it in a way that includes the complications and the contradictions and the good and the bad. And this is one of them, you know, the ability to have vanilla flavorings in so many different food products. We might not have that if we were relying only on the natural vanilla bean.
GROSS: You know, it's funny - I happen to love the taste of vanilla. But people are always comparing it negatively to chocolate. And the word vanilla has become a pejorative - like, oh, you're so vanilla or that's so vanilla - meaning bland and unadventurous.
CLARK: And American.
GROSS: Oh, and American? Yeah?
CLARK: Yeah, I think vanilla is a very American flavor. That's one of the reasons I chose it as the center or the specialty for this company. The chief flavorist, the starter - the person who started the company is a German who comes here and his attempts to, you know, please the market is by creating this really great vanilla. And it's also the reason - the global vanilla crisis of 1963 is sort of behind this creation of No Nilla. He knows that America needs vanilla and so he's going to find the thing that allows you to use that flavoring. And even when you only have half of the flavoring in any product, it amplifies that flavoring.
GROSS: The main character in your novel, the flavorist, is so obsessed with flavoring and notating flavor. And, I mean, his world revolves around flavor - its pleasures and consequences. And even a question like when does life really begin, he sees in terms of flavoring (laughter) and taste. So your book actually has footnotes. And one of the footnotes pertains to that question of, you know, when does life begin? So read that footnote for us on page 21.
CLARK: OK. (Reading) In this regard, I'm not quite a fundamentalist. Life, I say - at least any sense of life that rises above the mere biological, begins after conception most likely during the seventh week of pregnancy when a fetus develops taste buds and first senses the sweetness of the amniotic fluid, thereby establishing a flavor preference that will later be reinforced by the equally sweet taste of mother's milk. What is flavor perception if not the first hint of a soul?
GROSS: I love the way even a soul - the question of the soul relates to flavor for him. Did you want him to be obsessive and to have this lens that he sees the whole world through?
CLARK: Yeah, and that was one of the reasons for choosing flavorings. I mean, we've seen novels where somebody's going through a midlife crisis and somebody's got some family troubles. But we haven't had that story told through the prism of food and all of the metaphors that it allows. So it's looking at some familiar subjects, but it's doing it in a new way. It's using new language. And that again is one of the things that excites me as a writer and as a reader. I'm, you know, seeing something new, which is what a novel's supposed to be.
GROSS: Stephan Eirik Clark will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "Sweetness #9." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Stephan Eirik Clark, author of the new novel "Sweetness #9." The main character, David Leveraux, is a flavor scientists whose first job, in 1973, is testing the health effects of a new artificial sweetener called Sweetness #9 on lab rats and monkeys. He finds the animals overcome by rage, depression and obesity. When the company covers up the results he doesn't blow the whistle. Over the years as Sweetness #9 becomes commonly used in diet drinks and other foods and as Americans become prone to obesity and mood disorders, he wonders if there's a direct connection.
About once a week, your main character the flavorist likes to sit down with a food and analyze the flavoring - every note, every tone in the flavor. And he does that with a Manwich. To sort of get a sense of how he approaches taste, I'd like you to read that passage from "Sweetness #9."
CLARK: (Reading) Sold as the Manwich, this heat and serve meal weighed in at a hearty 790 calories. It was comprised of one sausage patty, two eggs, a couple of slices of bacon and a roof of American cheese as orange as a road cone. I was not eating it out of idle curiosity or owing to an extravagant appetite. It was my routine on Mondays to sit down to a long working breakfast. So in addition to my knife and fork, I had a legal pad and a pencil beside my plate along with plans to break down and identify all the components of the flavors I could detect in the Manwich. My meal's failures were apparent to me from the first bite. The bacon needed to be microwaved separately for optimum crispness. The eggs had been misquoted, if you will. And the savory flavorings used to prop up the processed meats and cheese were no more memorable than the propylene glycol that carried them.
GROSS: Did you start approaching food this way, too, so you would know what to write for your character? - like analyzing every taste?
CLARK: I did. But this is also something I'd picked up from my research. I visited a flavor creation lab in New Jersey, and this is one of the things that the flavorist did. He said that, you know, it was very difficult for his wife to enjoy dinner out because he'd always be jotting down the components of the flavoring on a napkin or the placemat. And so this is one of the things that I used to make this character more authentic.
GROSS: "Sweetness #9" is footnoted. And your main character, the flavorist says in one of the footnotes referring to himself, you can always count on a flavorist for a fancy prose style. And that's a paraphrase of a very famous line from Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita" in which he says you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Why did you want to give that line a shout in your novel?
CLARK: Well, there are a lot of shouts in the novel, and that's one of them. Nabokov is, perhaps, my favorite writer - "Lolita," perhaps my favorite novel. It, too, is a memoir told by somebody who is looking back on what he's done, and David, later on, does question whether or not he is a murderer - if not a literal one, then a metaphorical one. He's been responsible for helping launch this sweetener into the American food system. And he doesn't know if it has caused untold number of problems, perhaps causing anxiety, apathy, obesity - perhaps, causing some things that have led to premature deaths. So he feels a little bit like a murderer, and I think that's a literary way to sort of first allude to that early in the novel. But, also at the same time, a flavorist is somebody who is very much interested in artistry. So he wouldn't have a plain, unadorned prose style. Another flavorsist who's described as being able to create great fugues of flavor - it's a very creative field with all of these notes like a musician would have notes - you know, a little bit of vanilla - a little bit of butterscotch - put a little dark chocolate note in there. And the arrangements of these flavors is what creates, you know, these subtleties as something that's good rather than something that's just a bald and unappetizing flavor.
GROSS: So you wrote "Sweetnes #9," your new novel, over the course of about 12 years. Did you ever think, wow, I'm still writing this novel. It's been eight years - it's nine years - it's 10 years - I'm never going to finish it.
CLARK: Yeah, you know, whenever you start a book and you think about books that take 12 or 13 years, you think, oh, God that's probably, you know, a work of genius - somebody spends that long. But you have a completely different relationship to the idea. By the time you get to 6 year, you go, oh, that's not a work of genius. That's a work of madness. Who would spend this long working on something like that? And so by about year-six or seven, you know, writers I knew would be saying, oh, you're still working on that, are you? And you start to really doubt yourself and wonder what you're doing and is it going to be any good and will you ever sell it? And so yeah, it's nothing that I would recommend. I hear a lot of people at readings, you know, say what is your writing process? And I would say, you don't want to listen to mine. I mean, I took 13 years to write this book. But whenever I started it - I had written a novel beforehand, and it hadn't sold. And so maybe there was an element of not wanting to finish it because what's going to happen whenever I do? And so those first couple of years, I wasn't even thinking about trying to finish a book. I was just hanging out with my characters - eavesdropping on them. And I had no idea about where the story was going. And it was only after about the third or fourth year that I started to see a story develop. This Sweetness #9 became more and more important, and I said, OK, now let's get to it.
GROSS: Well, Stephan Eirik Clark, thank you so much for talking with us.
CLARK: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Stephan Eirik Clark is the author of the new novel "Sweetnesw #9." Coming up - some misconceptions about preventing and curing hangovers. We talk with Adam Rogers author of "Proof: the Science of Booze." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It can be nice to relax with a glass of wine, a beer or a shot of whiskey. But one drink too many, and you'll be paying the price. To understand why drinking can make us feel so good and so bad, we have to know a little bit about science, which is why Adam Rogers wrote the book "Proof: The Science Of Booze." He's the articles editor at Wired and formerly covered science and technology for Newsweek. Adam Rogers, welcome to FRESH AIR. You say over the past five years, researchers have revealed the pretty much everything anyone has ever told you about the causes of hangover is wrong. So what are some of the things that people had assumed were right that turned out to be wrong?
ADAM ROGERS: Well, the famous one is probably dehydration, right? Like everybody will tell you - oh, it's because alcohol dehydrates you and that's what's causing the hangover and...
GROSS: Right, right. And so therefore you're told drink a lot of water as you're drinking alcohol -
GROSS: - And that will help.
ROGERS: Yeah, exactly - or like alternate or have a big glass of water before you go to bed. And some of that comes from the fact that you do get dehydrated. But in fact, the dehydration does not seem to be what's causing the hangover. You can fix the dehydration and you're still hung over.
GROSS: OK, so we got rid of that one (laughter). Is it because your blood sugar is affected?
ROGERS: It is probably not the case that blood sugar is again what's causing the hangover. When you drink, your blood sugar levels are affected. But by the time you're hung over, your blood sugar levels are back to normal. And drinking a Gatorade or some other sports drink that changes your blood sugar levels doesn't seem to affect the hangover either.
GROSS: OK, what else were you told in the past about how to avoid a hangover that turns out to be scientifically wrong?
ROGERS: Well, there's that thing about mixing your drinks.
GROSS: Right, right, right.
ROGERS: Not drinking a beer -
GROSS: Don't do it. Yeah.
ROGERS: - And then drinking wine and then drinking - right? Again, no, you can do sort of - you can do the study where you have somebody drinking the same drink and getting to the same blood-alcohol level and somebody drinking different drinks and getting to the same blood-alcohol level. And they both get the same hangover. They both report the same symptoms. And similarly - like if you say, well, OK, maybe it's like impurities in the alcohol. So it's - I'm going to stick to vodka, you know, because that's pure somehow - just ethanol and water, right? And so they're drinking bourbon or drinking tequila or something, right? And there have been actually a couple of studies. The problem is they're kind of crummy. They were presented at conferences. They're not peer-reviewed. They were very small populations where people did report a worse hangover for something like brandy than they did for vodka. But everybody got the hangover, right? You still have those bad outcomes.
GROSS: OK, so we've dismissed some of the things that we've all been told will help prevent a hangover. What have scientists learned in the past that five years that might help us avoid a hangover?
ROGERS: Well, a couple of interesting things. One thing that scientists have started to figure out is that hangovers have a lot of symptomatic overlap with migraines. They look a lot like a migraine. So it started to look...
GROSS: I could've told them that. They didn't need to do a lot of research.
ROGERS: Yes, thank you science. Well, it turns out they did. Actually, it was until very recently that the researchers who studied hangovers even had a shared kind of language or vocabulary to talk about them. They didn't even have survey instruments that they could use to give people to have a reliable account of, like, whether your hangover was worse than mine or different from mine. And part of the issue here, too, is that hangovers have different symptoms for different people, right? Some people wear their hangovers in their guts and some people have horrible headaches. But we still see all of those things as a hangover. For a while, the only thing that people would have in common in terms of describing their hangovers - they would say I have a hangover. But everything else was different. So they finally got around that. They finally have a survey instrument that they can give somebody and assess, you know, you have a level-nine hangover. And you have a level-seven hangover. And they finally started to see that overlap with both migraine and also with an inflammatory response. So the kind of thing that you would have if you had the flu, let's say. Right, where you feel achy and you feel slow and your brain doesn't work as fast and you - just kind of general malaise. And so looking at that, they could go well, OK, let's see if in fact this is an inflammation. And if you look at people with hangovers, the same markers in the blood that you would see with an inflammatory response - things like cytokines, for example, which are a molecule that the immune system uses to talk to itself - actually do seem elevated. And even better, you can induce what looks like a hangover by giving somebody those same molecules. You can administer them and then you get symptoms that look like a hangover. So that's good news because if you say well, if it's an inflammatory response, then maybe I can go at it with anti-inflammatory drugs. And we have those.
GROSS: Well, we have those. But do they work for a hangover?
ROGERS: The study that is the one that most people refer back to on this used a drug called Clotam. And Clotam is a sort of - it's like a super-powered anti-inflammatory. It's prescribed for migraines in Europe. And in fact, it did work - that it did seem to alleviate a lot of the symptoms of hangover. Now the problem is that it's not in the U.S. pharmacopeia. You can't get it here. I tried. But there are obviously other anti-inflammatories that we get over-the-counter - ibuprofen, things like that. The problem is that things like ibuprofen have side effects - potentially dangerous ones if you take a lot of them - that are in some ways synergistic with the effects of a hangover. So if you drink too much you have a lot of gastrointestinal issues, for example, right? There hasn't been a good study peer-reviewed with a lot of people in it looking at things like Advil - looking at the kind of stuff you can get over the counter. Nobody's actually done that yet. They've only done it with the sort of prescription-strength high-powered inflammatories.
GROSS: So, you're saying the jury's still out about whether over-the-counters are really going to be effective with hangover?
GROSS: Other than the way everybody already uses them, which is...
ROGERS: Yeah exactly, the issue here is ...
GROSS: Oh my God, I have a hangover.
ROGERS: ... also like how often you're going to be doing that. You know?
GROSS: Right, right. So, I'm surprised you didn't fly to France as part of your research to test out this drug that you say isn't available in the United States but was used in this anti-inflammatory hangover study.
ROGERS: You know, that actually would've been a really good reporting move.
GROSS: Oh you're so welcome. (Laughing).
ROGERS: Next book.
GROSS: (Laughing) So, you were talking earlier about myths about hangovers that scientists have disproven. One of the long-term remedies for a hangover is hair of the dog, the next morning you have a drink.
GROSS: Scientifically does that work?
ROGERS: Well, there is a good story about why it might work, although this is very, very hypothetical. And that is the idea that a hangover is caused by methanol toxicity. So, methanol is another the kind of alcohol right, alcohols as a class or a class of molecules in organic chemistry, ethanol is the one that we drink to feel like we've been drinking. But in any preparation of fermenting and especially distilling you'll get a little bit of methanol too. And if there's too much, that's that, it's the stuff that makes you go blind in bad moonshine right? But there's a notion that in small amounts it might be what's causing symptoms of a hangover too. And when you're treating methanol toxicity in a hospital - you show up in an ER with methanol toxicity. They'll give you a big dose of ethanol because it displaces the methanol off that enzyme. It keeps the enzyme from breaking it down into toxic stuff. So the idea's, well maybe the hair of the dog is like that. Maybe the hair of the dog is you're giving yourself a ethanol and that's displacing the methanol and so you feel better. That's all very hypothetical and the real bummer there is that people who - of the people who admit to using hair of the dog as a treatment for their hangovers they're also - they turn out to be the ones more likely to have an alcohol dependency later in life.
GROSS: That's not a surprise?
ROGERS: It has some intuitive power, yes.
GROSS: (Laughing.) But the thing is, I thought that most alcohol that we'd be drinking that's legit doesn't have methanol in it. So how would the ethanol help?
ROGERS: These would be trace amounts. If you drink enough, then the trace amounts add up, and it's just enough to give you the kind of discomfort - the symptoms of a hangover.
GROSS: So, you're referring to the alcohol that's in, you know, liquor, beer or wine as ethanol. I've always thought of ethanol as something that's mixed in with gasoline at the pump, and it's used as an alternate fuel - made out of corn. So, when you say that the alcohol we drink is ethanol, what exactly is that?
ROGERS: Well, so those are all the same thing. You're right, and alcohols are a class of molecules in organic chemistry, so it's just a combination of carbons and hydrogens and oxygens in a particular order and depending on how many of those and what order you have them and how they're built togethe, you can have - you know, methanol is an alcohol. Ethanol is an alcohol. The kind of alcohol in the rubbing alcohol you buy as a - to sterilize a cut, you know, is another kind of alcohol. But ethanol is the one that we drink. It's the one with the psychoactive effects, and it's not - doesn't have the toxicity that some of the other ones would. And it also - because there's a lot of energy packed into the bonds in those - in the molecules - packed into the chemical bonds that hold the molecule together, it's also possible to use as a fuel just like gasoline.
GROSS: Now that you've done a lot of research for your book about the science of booze and, you know, you've interviewed distillers and winemakers and you've done a lot of tastings, you've traveled around. Are there things that you will not drink anymore that you used to because, you know, you basically after learning about how it's made or what its effect on you is you lost your interest in it?
ROGERS: So, I have, I've kind of stopped drinking cheap slivavotz, which I use to drink every once and a while, mostly at Passover, because I can sort of identify off flavors in it.
GROSS: And that's plum brandy.
ROGERS: It's a plum brandy, that's right. And there are a few small distilleries making whiskey that I don't drink anymore even though I love the craft distilling movement and I like whiskey a lot because for me now I know, having been exposed to the - some flavors that come from aging whiskey in small barrels, which taste different than if you age the whiskey for a longer time in a larger barrel. And I don't like those flavors, so I've stopped drinking those.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
ROGERS: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Adam Rogers is the author of the new book "Proof: The Science Of Booze." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ed Ward tells us the story of the pioneering solo group the '5' Royales. A new box-set collects their recordings. This is FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.